Monday, August 29, 2011

Arabella, Zdenka - Duet, by Richard Strauss


Sopranos Sarah Fletcher, Arabella  & Diane Althaus, Zdenka

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Great Singing at the 7-11 Store

Perfect legato technique and the ability to sing high C are a not skills in great demand just now.  The pop music culture and Hollywood scene are almost as bad as the banking industry--drug money, phoney money, government money. You can't make your own kind of music in that show. The business end of a passion for art, or whatever, is real messy.

Now it starts to get good in this upside-down mad world. You're working nights at 7-11, even though you are pretty hot stuff at the YMCA and the Fat Chance Opera company. That voice! Rich bronzed horse flesh. You're better than the guy you heard at Harriett's piano bar. What was the name of that flea trap?

It's the middle of the night. Verdi's Otello is in the CD player. Sing along. Why not! The last customer came in three hours ago, wasted. You brought down the house at the beginning of Act II. Your interpretation of Iago's Credo scared the leopard-skin bikini off the twitch on the cover of Hot Rod Magazine.

Credo in un Dio crudel  "I believe in a cruel God who has made me in his own image, whom I name in my rage... ."   Shakespeare didn't write that, but then, he didn't have a soundtrack like Verdi's score.

Well into the second act, you're singing, and you turn with a flourish toward the glass doors where a stick-up artist is coming in. For crying out loud, another interruption!

This crook looks a bit nervous under the stage lights. Obviously, he's inexperienced, but a two-bit 7-11 store should be an easy job to add to his short resume. Preoccupied, he is ignoring Verdi's music.

"Give me the money."

"Just let me get through the second act, will you?.  If you come back later there'll be more."

"You're joking, of course."

"It's been a slow night. Can you settle for about forty dollars and a couple of six-packs?"

"Well, certainly, I'll take whatever you can offer." A very courteous thief. "Throw in some corn flakes and a gallon of milk, and it's a deal."

"How about a pastrami sandwich for the road?"

"How do you expect me to carry all this stuff? I'm walking, man! Aren't you being awfully generous with your boss's merchandise?"

"Why fight the system? He's insured. I was a hero with the first crook who came in here, even more inexperienced than you. The guy looked like a pervert, so I told him I wouldn't call the police for at least an hour if he would take subscriptions to several magazines, his choice.  It was 4:00 PM, and customers were crouched behind every gum ball machine and cooler. He was unsteady with the gun. The boss said I should have just given him the money. `You want to get somebody killed?' He said.  But, I'm holding you up, holding me up."

This should be good for a chuckle, but try not to let it interupt the rhythm of the work. "So, what'll it be? The pastrami, or the corn flakes and milk?"

"I'll take the milk, for sure. Got a kid at home."  The crook has calmed down enough so maybe we can get this over with before Si pel ciel. But now he's listening to the music, and he notices the recording package on the counter top. "The Domingo/ Milnes duet is coming up," he says.

"Yeah.  Take a box of animal crackers for the kid. I'd like to stay in character. If I turn this thing off, I have to start my Stanislavski exercises all over again."

"You use Stanislavski technique? They taught us method acting at Eastman."

"Well it works for me. You know this music, eh?"

"We did a concert version at Eastman."   He looks like an Otello.  Big.  Black. With a high-pitched, big-man voice, he's a dramatic tenor if there ever was one.

"I sang most of Iago at the University of Washington in an opera workshop. Piano accompaniment only. With a faculty tenor. I was older than he was, I think."

"I'll be darned. You're a singer. Something told me you weren't the English-degree type one usually finds in these places."

"I'm a little under qualified for the literary magazines, but I had the right connections to get the job."

Verdi's brass ensemble vibrates loose trim on the countertop. The lights burn down from their tracking. Neither of these corralled horses is going to miss his cue. Here it comes.

""Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro... .""  Vengeance! Vengeance, by God! Vengeance

Monday, August 15, 2011

What a Party!

Joy is fifty
could be forty
she is accomplished
a software developer
She has a baggy-eyed Basset Hound

And husband, also accomplished
Dean recently achieved
liberation from an oppressive job and boss
He's happier than I've seen him
maybe ever!
He's ready to party with Joy
and the dog who sings along

hors d' oeuvres
There's a lot of good food here
Nice home and weather
a little cool for August
Cedars and salal
beyond a country half acre

Stu says he and Dean are flying friends
Dean gave Stu the unfinished garage aircraft
a model abandoned due to six or seven crashes
four or five deaths among other users
I'd prefer radio control over canyons
But now there are modifications to the design

A guitarist's nimble athleticism on strings
rings a bell I can't not answer
those runs keep interrupting me
eventually I tell the guitarist he's the real deal
No kidding, you really play!
Most guitar players bang on the thing.
I could listen to you all day

More food, folks, and cordial conversations
in several accented voices, Russian, Nigerian
Eastern European, now accompanied by Spanish guitar
The inner strings revive
I had to fight sleep on the drive
but I made it without interrupting Diane
studying her music for The Fat Chance Opera

The Fat Chance is two weeks off
but there is an opera on the veranda of this house
Joy sings with the guitarist and a violin
and Sasha on electric piano, an angel and harp
I'm filled, thrilled
where did Joy find this orchestra?
Among friends

The birds can't do this
Alto and soprano
A duet, Joy and Diane
Man, oh man oh!
Sorry, Woman, oh Woman!
Other side of those Cedars
Must be an envious eagle

The guitarist is a double threat
he plays and sings
with Joy in another duet
Or is it a trio?
How does he do vocal harmony and strings?
Razzle dazzle!
No thanks, I don't want to sing, I'm happily frazzled

After another trip to the table
we eat salmon and steak on the back half acre
Joy stops everything for a prayer by Julie
beautifully said in Nigerian English
Everybody seems ok with Jesus
One never knows
Conversation with the guitarist is interrupted by seating arrangements

There is agreement at my table
We abhor the politics of debt
and making more of it
Where will it end?
Neither taxes nor atrocities in entitlements will suffice
Senators Jackson, Magnuson, now Murry had money to burn
but Republicans are as bad when it's their turn

More music after dinner
Diane and Sasha sing and play
Richard the guitarist and I reminisce
compare numbers in the draft lottery during our twentieth year
of driving trucks and riding trains
his commitment to music, Bach, Segovia
teaching kids who want to get famous without theory or technique

It's late
I like my job
I'll work in the morning
A few more words won't sustain the party
But maybe Richard's music can
This is the song I didn't sing

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pretty Funny, Being an Artist, Especially if you have Children

These new convenience stores are terrific, everything under one roof. Gas, groceries, pizza, a drug store. Open twenty four hours a day, they're a regular one-stop robbery center.

The connection between all-night convenience stores and robberies is clear to any writer. Most of us have worked graveyard in one of these places. In the middle of the night, half the people who come in are dangerous. A friend of mine, talented, not a writer, an opera singer, told me about a big dude who came in one night at 7-11 while he was working. The guy had no taste, interrupted Steve in the middle of Forza del Destino on cassette. "Just give me the money," says the big dude. "I've got a gun... ."

"That's all right, you don't have to show it to me," Steve blurted as he opened the cash drawer. "I want this to go as smoothly as you do."

So, that's what it's like out there at night. Your average computer programmer with a wife and kids doesn't think about it. He can see the connection, once you point it out to him, and often it's another revelation. He laughs, probably at the thought of what it takes to find this stuff out. Thank God, he doesn't have to work the night shift in one of those florescent fishbowls.

Another singer I know was living in a fly-trap apartment in San Francisco with her year-old son. She said the hookers and thieves who circulated in and out of the building were very protective. She even let some of the gang babysit for her sometimes. If anybody dangerous was around the building, she was the first to hear about it, from people who knew very well what to watch out for. Here you have the material for some strange incongruities. What happens when Mrs. Magnum Opus from the opera guild calls to schedule Susan in an opera preview at the Shorewood Library or someplace like that, and gets Huey the pimp sitting around Susan's pad with a couple of his girls minding the baby.

"Huh? Uh... Nawh, she ain't here right now. ...Oprah?...We watch the Oprah Show sometimes." Then to the girls, "Got any paper around here." The dish watery sleaze in the tank-top shoves a coffee-stained napkin across the table toward Huey. He doesn't have a pencil, so he gets up with the phone and scrounges around Susan's bookshelf to find one.

Ready with the napkin. "OK. Lay it on me, Babe. ...You beg you pardon, fugging right. ...Hey, bitch, I ain't got all day. ...Send him over, my girls can handle him."

Susan calls back when she gets a load of the previous conversation, to see how many bridges have been burned. "I've been out all morning." Maybe she thought it was a wrong number. ...Nope. "...Uh, no, the baby sitter. ...Down to the market. ...Market Street!? No, the grocery! ...Shorewood Library on the twenty seventh? Who's the accompanist? ...Beth? Fine, I know Beth. ...I'm just fine, really. I could use about ten more AGMA engagements per year."

Huey hollers from the other side of the table, "I'll give you all the engagements you can handle, Susie.  I'll call 'em, you maul 'em."

This is the way movie scripts get written. With very little effort, and no talent, you can make a script about an opera singer who becomes a high class hooker, but is discovered before her son is old enough to know why everybody laughs when Huey says, "Sing him to sleep, Susie, and get gone." You might call it a new-fashioned heart warmer. Use a pseudonym. Take the money and run. Then do a story about a writer who becomes a high-class hacker.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pretty Funny, Being an Artist

A friend of mine who is an opera singer is also a part-time chef at the airport. He chops vegetables and prepares the gourmet mixed nuts they give you on the plane so you will stop being a jerk and let the stewardess get on with her work. Anyway, my friend the singer is married and his wife has a real job as a legal assistant.  So one night when he gets off work at the airport he stops at a Halloween party with some of her lawyer friends. The room is full of them, thick as thieves, you might say. It's Halloween, and Steve figures he can get by as a chef. Checkered pants. Billowy white hat. 

First thing you know, "Oh, you're Gina's husband. What do you do for a living?"

"I work for United Airlines." Steve can see this effort to dodge the question is not working, so he adds, "When are you flying next? I'll see that your meal is poisoned and the landing gear on the airplane is sabotaged."

Of course, Mr. Young Hot Shot with Meyers, Stone, Jenkins, and Pierriewater, misses Steve's effort at humor. He goes right back for the kill. "Ha ha. What do you really do?"

"I'm a musician."

"But what do you do for a living?"

"Like I said, I work for United Airlines."

Real suspicious now. "But what do you do?"

"I'm a chef."

"Oh ho ho. Do you wear that baker-boy outfit when you sing?"

"Only when I do the Flower Song from Carmen."

Mr. Career Track attorney misses the pun, and he wanders off to find somebody worth talking to, somebody worthy of the attention of a man dressed for this party as an Oscar Meyer wiener in a bun. When Steve bumps into him again, he asks, "By the way, what do you do?"

"I'm with Meyers, Stone, Jenkins, and Pierrie."

"What do they do? Are you just along for the ride?"

"Mr. Pillsbury Dough boy thinks he's a comedian. Why don't you go back to the kitchen, wise guy!"

What a wiener!  Steve was just curious. He found out from his wife the guy was touchy because he's only the book keeper and Meyers, Stone, Jenkins, and Pierre--a law firm with a new client in a food distributor with a hot-dog fast food franchise.

I give young professionals such a hard time you probably think I'm envious or just plain bitter.  It isn't that simple. Close though.

I had a friend who is now a neurosurgeon. He tried to keep in touch with me, but I couldn't stand going places where the rest of the crowd were all medical people. Talk about a hierarchy! I'd come into a tavern with my friend, Larry, so anybody in the group who knew him thought I must be a doctor as well. Some of those guys were kind of a pain, excuse the expression. Imagine a young resident physician wearing his stethoscope into a tavern. They say that fellow had worked his way up from very meager beginnings to become a doctor, and he had a right to be proud. Well, all right. But the women had no excuse for kissing his hands and washing his feet with their tears.

Of course, the first question anybody asked me was, "Are you a doctor." I'm such a schmuck, I always said no before the women started in on me. The other doctors would go find somebody worth talking to--other people who were wearing stethoscopes.
My old friend and I had gone to high school together, and at the University, we stayed in touch. We started climbing the big volcanoes in the Northwest. Back then, Mt. St Helens was two thousand feet higher. He studied a lot, but he liked to get out into the mountains. By the time he was a resident at the medical school, we had done Mt. Hood, St. Helens, Mt. Washington, and a couple of ascents of Mt. Shasta in northern California, including a midwinter freeze-out on the Bolam Glacier.
Once in a while he couldn't get his work out of his mind long enough to enjoy our trips. This isn't funny. I remember him grinding his teeth about a child who had just died after surgery. One or two years old, this child had the kind of problem that would have turned him into a freak before the advent of the surgical procedure that had been done. Larry had told the parents the operation was likely to be only a temporary solution, and they would have to keep bringing the kid back. The one thing he hadn't warned them of was that he might die. He did. Larry spent the weekend preoccupied with what they must be going through. What it was putting him through was bad enough.
Larry's father was a prominent surgeon in our area. The people whose lives he had kick-started again could have populated a small town in Eastern Washington. He sewed a friend of mine back together after a car accident. Another friend of mine died after that accident. In a career like this a few mistakes are inevitably made. This doctor left a small surgical sponge inside a patient. A second incision had to be made to remove it. Big deal. Larry's father was invited to all the society parties. One night he walked into a group of people, and some drunk said, "Hey, Doc, lose any sponges lately?" I don't know how many people there were at that party who owed their lives to the doctor. A lot of people laughed. He got his hat and coat and went home.
Now, this man knew there was more to medicine than prestige. I think a life like his is worth living. His son, my friend, is practicing medicine, doubtless in a similar worthy fashion.  You have to respect the real professional.
I had need of an attorney some years ago, when I fought another messy ordeal over the sale of a business. The woman who handled my case had a very high regard for the truth. Any judge in town would tell you, if there is a problem with her client's case, she works with the problem instead of trying to cover it up. An operation like I was running was easy to find fault with. After I sold it to the employees, they decided they had paid too much. They were making more money than I had, but it still bothered them to have to pay me. My attorney refered me to an accountant in the process of grinding this collection problem down. He demonstrated the same ethical approach in his business as she did. I learned a few things from those two.
A few people have shown me enough class to last a lifetime. Their rigor and professionalism was inspiring. Coming from a cynic like me, that should have some credibility, but Socrates will back me up. Human goodness is not an illusion.
So, why don't I just stop carping? Once you know what the ideal is, it should be possible to live up to it. It's one thing to recognize virtue when you see it. Finding it for yourself is harder. I have a general idea of excellence. Put it next to most of what I see--in myself as much as in others--and you have the material for satire or suicide. Given that choice, we can get on with the show.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Soul is more than Syntax

Writing applies many skills in communication of something important, or anyway enjoyable enough, to get readers to continue reading.  Writing well also seems to require inner strength that cannot be taught by writing professors or professionals.  Joseph Epstein has a few thoughts on writing in The New Criterion, which is itself a place to find a lot of good writing.

The pretext for Epstein's ideas is his review of the new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.  Epstein says there is something fishy about the book.  His review is titled Heavy Sentences.

He begins:
After thirty years of teaching a university course in something called advanced prose style, my accumulated wisdom on the subject, inspissated into a single thought, is that writing cannot be taught, though it can be learned—and that, friends, is the sound of one hand clapping. A. J. Liebling offers a complementary view, more concise and stripped of paradox, which runs: “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business.” 

See if Epstein can keep you reading...  .

Friday, August 5, 2011

First movement; Sonata for Oboe and Guitar, by Jeremiah Lawson

Harland "Swede" Larson, guitarist and Katie Mordarski, oboist

Monday, August 1, 2011

Duet for Two Cats, by Gioachino Rossini

Sopranos: Ping Shao and Chelsey Baker

Duet: Countess and Susanna, Mozart

Sopranos: Sarah Fletcher and Diane Althaus